Why early 20th-century theology manuals are vital for Catholics today
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February 23, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — In a time of rampant confusion about basic Catholic doctrine – to say nothing of more complicated problems of theology – it’s really important that we base our conclusions on sure principles and authorities.
A key problem is that what apparently comes from the Church today often contradicts what was taught before, and as such Catholics are not allowed to accept these things. In the aftermath of the Council, both the laity and clergy could (and were obliged to) “stand fast: and hold the traditions, which [they had] learned.” (2 Thess 2.14).
But later generations in the West have not received that sound formation, and are often having to learn for themselves what the Church teaches. This is an abnormal and fraught situation. The questions eventually arise: Where do we go to learn the Catholic Faith? How do we make sense of the modern ecclesial landscape, especially if those who claim to govern us are giving us things that contradict the Faith? What should we do once we are ‘put on notice’ that certain clerics are contradicting parts of revealed doctrine?
We find ourselves repeating the words of St Peter to our Lord, albeit in a different sense:
Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have known that thou art the Christ, the Son of God. (John 6.69-70)
One way or another, we have had the joy of learning to believe that Jesus Christ is God, and that he established the Roman Catholic Church. We thrilled as we were convinced by apologetics, which led us to make our Act of Faith. We attained our grasp of basic doctrine using sources such as the Baltimore or maybe even the Roman Catechism. And then we started to notice problems.
If those appointed to teach and govern us are not being faithful to that deposit, what do we do? Where do we go for a deeper and more mature understanding of Sacred Doctrine, or indeed of morality, especially in relation to the modern crisis? How do we establish what is a novelty, or contradicts the received doctrine of the Church? What sources should we use, and which should we avoid? And how do we explain this dire situation?
Sources of Doctrine
Some turn to modern writers like Michael Davies, or to those who wrote histories of comparable periods – such as John Henry Newman on the Arian Crisis. Some find great theologians that deal with relevant but very specific questions, and end up arguing about the opinions of Cajetan against Suarez against John of St Thomas against St Robert Bellarmine, and so on. Others go straight into pre-conciliar magisterial documents, and use them to try to make sense of things.
All of these approaches lack context. Leaping straight into such texts without a thorough grounding in philosophy and theology is not how the Church trained her priests. Why would we think that it’s a good thing for laymen to do?
Instead, I want to suggest that we should look to the ‘theology manuals’ (and their equivalents in philosophy) from the early twentieth and late nineteenth century. Why this period? Because to form conclusions and to identify what is and isn’t a post-conciliar innovation, we need to know what was taught and how it was understood before the Council. This isn’t of itself a rejection of things that have come after Vatican II: it’s a fact-finding exercise.
Debates can and should refer to magisterial pronouncements: but they should also refer to how these pronouncements were understood by the Church, and not be treated as proof-texts existing in a vacuum. To be sure, the manuals also shouldn’t be crassly mined for proof-texts either – but the point is maintaining context.In addition, the ‘inter-conciliar’ manuals benefit from Vatican I’s clarity on topics like the extents and limits of infallibility, and yet precede the confusion that came with Vatican II.
What are the manuals, and why are they important?
The much-admired Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, in 1963, defined authorized manuals as:
[The] books actually used in the instruction of candidates for the priesthood. They are written by men who actually teach in the Church’s own approved schools, under the direction of the Catholic hierarchy, and ultimately […] under the direction of the Sovereign Pontiff himself. [My emphases.]
Elsewhere, Fenton notes that certain manuals were “adopted and utilized” by diocesan bishops, particularly for official seminary training – and to that extent, “they may be said to express the teaching of the bishops about the matters they teach. To this extent, the manuals… may be said to express in some way the ordinary magisterium of the Church.”
Fenton concludes that “the common or morally unanimous teaching of the manuals in this field is definitely a part of Catholic doctrine.” While the opinions of individual writers cannot simply be declared to be such, “the unanimous teaching of the scholastic theologians has always been recognized as a norm of Catholic doctrine”.
These are the sources from which we should be getting a deeper understanding of doctrine. Classics of spirituality, the biographies of cloistered saints, popular apologetics books, celebrity clergymen, ecclesiastical history, even podcasts: these sources may make one grow in Faith and in the love of God: and that’s very good if they do so. But they are not substitutes for the scientific, systematic and authoritative exposition of the Faith found in such manuals.
In a sense, manuals occupy a similar place for the clergy as do catechisms for the laity. Generations were taught from standard catechisms, and so too were the clergy taught from the common fund of the manuals’ teaching. Both catechisms and manuals stand as witnesses to the Faith of the Church, but at differing levels of depth. But the manuals are not beyond the laity: the very fact that many were translated into the vernacular shows that they were intended for us. And just as it would be audacious to dismiss or contradict the Baltimore Catechism, so too would it be to dismiss or contradict the manual tradition.
In short, these authorized manuals are authoritative and safe witnesses to Catholic doctrine, “manifesting in some way the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church”, especially where they are morally unanimous.
Praise for this tradition
Scott Hahn, in his foreword to Fenton’s book of apologetics and fundamental theology, expresses the value of that text and its tradition by comparing it with the present:
But in private – late into a long night’s conversation, after a glass of wine or maybe two – many Catholics of my generation and younger will confess to a secret envy. We strongly suspect that we didn’t get the same quality or quantity of intellectual and spiritual formation that Catholics generally received in the middle of the last century.
Is citing Fenton and others in support of their tradition’s authority a circular argument? No – they are just enunciating the attitude of the Church, who is “a trustworthy teacher of the Christian religion and of the Christian way of life”.And, as Fenton points out:
If these books all contain common teaching opposed to or even distinct from genuine Catholic doctrine, then the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church has been very much at fault during the course of the twentieth century.
Further, Pope Pius XII himself taught thisin his 1950 encyclical Humani generis:
To neglect, or to reject, [things] which in many instances have been conceived, expressed, and perfected after long labor, by men of no ordinary genius and sanctity, under the watchful eye of the holy magisterium, and not without the light and guidance of the Holy Spirit for the expression of the truths of faith ever more accurately, so that in their place conjectural notions may be substituted, as well as certain unstable and vague expressions of a new philosophy, which like a flower of the field exists today and will die tomorrow: not only is the highest imprudence, but also makes dogma itself as a reed shaken by the wind. (D 2312f., 34th edition).
Myths: Dry and Ultramontanist?
The manuals are portrayed as dry, reductive and narrow. They were written off by some in the 1960s because of “the anti-modernist emphasis which penetrated them”– which should speak in their favour for us today.
And on the contrary, they are not dry or narrow. They are beautiful expressions of the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are clear, systematic expositions of every aspect of theology, from the natural proofs of God’s existence, through to the theology of the Church (ecclesiology), the Holy Trinity, Creation, Grace, the Incarnation, the Sacraments and the Four Last Things. They are serious, yes: but how could serious teaching on these topics be dry or narrow?
It’s not that we shouldn’t be reading St Thomas or St Augustine – but again, their texts do not exist in a vacuum. The Doctors of the Church are to teach us, not to provide us with half-understood proof-texts. There are varying contexts: one is their own period, but another is the state of the question ‘today’ (by which I mean, just before the Council and the ensuing doctrinal chaos). Questions that were open then, may no longer be. If we want to judge and act correctly today, we need to understand what was believed until yesterday. These texts are a part of a received tradition which must impose itself on our understanding.
There is another popular idea that, around the time of the definition of papal infallibility, there was a terrible period of ‘ultramontanism’, or an exaggeration of papal prerogatives – and presumably that this coloured the theses of the manuals.
In parish life, there does indeed appear to have been an over-estimation of the virtue of obedience, which aided the rapid collapse of Catholic life in the West. But this is a grotesque caricature of the teachingof the Church at the time. The manuals from this period are far from such exaggerations.
In fact, they are a gold standard for ecclesiology and related issues. Ecclesiology flourished, and they not only enjoyed the clarity of Vatican I whilst preceding the triumph of modernism, but also benefit from the naming of St Robert Bellarmine as a Doctor of the Church, and encyclicals like Mystici Corporis Christi and Mortalium animos. Contrary to popular misconceptions, they do not portray the Pope as if he were a god, or treat him like a divine oracle. They are not pope-centric, and their understanding of ecclesial infallibility is rooted in the Church, not the Pope. And even if such exaggerations did exist in parish life or in works of spirituality, that would only strengthen the witness of the sober Roman theology of the manuals.
A response to this might be: If the manuals are so good, then why did those formed by them carry out the demolition of Catholic life that we saw after the Council? Didn’t all the early Modernists and later ‘New Theologians’ study these texts, and yet reject them? Why didn’t more rank-and-file clergy rebel against the tyranny, citing the manuals as their authority?
This is an understandable response, and is like asking: ‘If the Old Mass was so good, why did so many accept the New?’ But all these questions have about as much force as asking: ‘If the Catholic Faith is so good, why did the Arians/Orthodox/Protestants break away?’ In any case: we can speculate about all sorts of reasons for clerical actions after Vatican II, from fear of the tyrannical and extra-judicial enforcement by bishops, to infiltration by Communists and Freemasons, and who knows what else. There may even be some relationship between these texts and the collapse – but it will not do to use this to denigrate the manuals. The balance of causes is uncertain, but the nature of the manual tradition is not. Such an objection can only arise from an ignorance of their actual content, which just is the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Finally, it’s true that manuals are a more challenging exposition of the Faith than a standard catechism or a podcast. But the stark reality is this: if someone cannot make the effort, or does not have the ability to study the Church’s pre-conciliar doctrine in translations of standard seminary textbooks then be aware of what that says about their positions. Any reaction to the modern crisis should be supported by the principles of Catholic doctrine, which are found in these books. A position or theory that cannot demonstrate or be reconciled with such foundations (or even worse, that contradicts them) is, on the face of it, suspect.
So in general: Beware those that sneer at the manuals: beware them, because who knows what they want to put in their place.
With reference to the crisis in the Church
We cannot hope to make sense of this unprecedented sixty-year crisis without reference to this tradition.
Rather than trying to deduce theories from the lives of saints, works of history, internet personalities, or the priest that we think is ‘quite’ orthodox, let’s turn to these books and learn what they seek to teach us. They address many issues that we face today: What does it mean for the Church to be visible? What are the extents of infallibility? Who is and isn’t a member of the Catholic Church? What does it mean for the Church to be united, to be one? What moral principles are safe to follow?
Many of these questions have matured over centuries – and many enjoy settled, consensus answers. We cannot ignore this. While living at this painful time is a privilege, we must be faithful to what has been handed down to us.
Rather than delving through Cajetan and others on a certain question, wouldn’t it be better to know if there was a consensus of Roman theologians on the matter? Familiarity with these manuals reveals how little relevance the opinions of even some great theologians have to our situation. And if we need to apply lessons from history, shouldn’t we learn the doctrine first – otherwise how will we judge the accuracy of an historical account?
No theories – be they about ‘splitting the papacy’, membership of the Church, new situations dispensing with established ethical principles, or anything else at all – none of these should be accepted without references to this body of teaching, and certainly not against a moral unanimity of their authors. We do not love or serve the Church by ignoring her doctrine.
Anyone who wishes to have a developed opinion on the crisis needs to be familiar with at least the theses of these works, and cannot glibly dismiss them as dry or ultramontanist.
So let us turn to the books with joyful docility: let us believe the theses they teach us, and apply them,and not our own ideas, to the facts.
In general, manuals were published in Latin. Nonetheless, there are many editions that have been translated into (or were written in) the vernacular. Coming from a time when all priests had Latin, this is an indication that they were intended for an educated laity. Many are available for free online, and many are available as print-on-demand, reprints or second-hand.
Cardinal Mercier’s two-part Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophyis available online as print-on-demand.
Van Noort’s three-part Dogmatic Theology series (including his respected Christ’s Church) is available online and from Arouca Press, interviewed for LifeSiteNews by Stephen Kokx here.
Willem and Scannell’s Manual of Catholic Theology was recently made available as print-on-demand.
Hunter’s Outlines of Dogmatic Theology is available online in various print-on-demand editions.
Tanquerey’s two-volume synopsis Dogmatic Theology is available to view on archive.org, but difficult to get hold of for a reasonable price in print. But pray and you may be lucky!
The Summa Theologiae Sacrae series, praised by Fenton,has been translated by Fr Kenneth Baker.
The Church of Christ by Berry is a popular and respected manual of Ecclesiology and is available from Wipf and Stock.
Cluny Press have published a collection of essays by Mgr Fenton entitled The Church of Christ. His Concept of Sacred Theology is also available there under the title What is Sacred Theology.
Other ecclesiology books, such as by Finlay or McLaughlin, are readily available as print-on-demand.
McHugh and Callan’s Moral Theology is available online and as print-on-demand.
Somebody with the time and skill would do well to crowdfund and translate Cardinal Billot’s De Ecclesia and Dom Adrien Gréa’s L’Eglise et sa Divine Constitution into English.
Joseph Clifford Fenton, ‘The Teaching of the Theological Manuals’, American Ecclesiastical Review, April 1963, pp. 254-270.
Joseph Clifford Fenton, What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, 2018. pp. 118-9.
Fenton 2018, p 119.
Hahn, Scott. ‘Foreword’, in Fenton, Joseph Clifford, Laying the Foundation: A Handbook of Catholic Apologetics and Fundamental Theology, Emmaus Road 2016, vii.
G. Van Noort, ‘Christ’s Church’, Dogmatic Theology II, Newman Press, Maryland 1957. 118.
Fr Gregory Baum, quoted in Ibid.
In fact many did, particularly after the imposition of the New Mass and what Benedict XVI confirmed was an illegal ‘banning’ of the Old Mass. They and the laity that gathered around them were the beginning of the ‘traditional movement’.